Customer Service

Smart is talking back

I still call the device I carry a “smartphone,” but to my 16-year-old, it’s just a phone. She knows no other kind. She rarely makes or gets calls, but she expects her phone to talk back to her, to give her (and her parents) usage data, and to tell her how to get somewhere or what social channels her friends are on.

Similarly, our current and future customers — the millennials and post-millennials who are entering the workforce and paying bills — expect communications from any device or organization they deal with to be smart. “Smart” is not the term they’d use, but two-way communication is a fundamental expectation. Generations Y, Z, and others that follow respond best to communications that give them options, allow them to interact, and are worthy of sharing with friends.

In this evolving “smart age,” what new generations expect can shape public power communications in three critical ways.

1. Community

Generations Y and Z have a strong sense of community and like to feel connected to the products and services they buy. They like to buy local and will consider spending more at the store down the street than they might with a large, national corporation. Like the farm-to-table trend, knowing where products and services are coming from is important. Many in this group distrust large businesses and corporations. Small, community-based organizations are more likely to be seen as authentic.

Imagine the impact we can make if we remind them that their electric utility is community-owned and that they have a stake. That’s why the national public power awareness campaign rolled out in October 2018 is based on the theme Community Powered. Learn more and join the campaign at

2.Value alignment

A recent study by the public relations firm Edelman showed that today’s consumers favor brands that stand for something. They weigh a brand’s principles before buying its products. Nearly 64 percent of consumers around the world will choose, switch to, avoid, or boycott a brand based on where it stands on the political or social issues they care about.

Nike’s new commercial featuring Colin Kaepernick, as controversial as it is, drew a loyal following and boosted sales because the company took a stand. National Public Radio offered stainless steel straws for donors during its fall membership drive, knowing that its listeners are likely to care about saving the turtles by eliminating plastic straws.

New generations are more likely to buy something after viewing a message focused on a brand’s stand than they are after viewing a product-focused communication. And 60 percent of consumers say brands should make it easier to see their values and positions on important issues at the point of sale.

This is good news for public power. Our values are simple and reflect those of the communities we serve, of our friends and neighbors. So, let’s make that clear in all our communications — from bill stuffers to websites.

3. Co-creation

Younger generations are not content to passively observe and absorb. They engage best with something they are involved in creating.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely talks about the “IKEA effect,” the joy and engagement that people feel when they assemble their furniture after a struggle with instruction manuals that seem to be written in code.

Social media has fostered this culture of co-creation and involvement in powerful new ways. Platforms that cater to the collaborative urge include Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform that involves people in the creation of something from the get-go, and Wikipedia, the “encyclopedia written by the people who use it.” 

Public power has an advantage here too. Remind customer-owners that they have a voice in making decisions about their community-owned utility’s future. Instead of you, the utility, saying how awesome you are, motivate customers to claim pride of ownership and brag about living in a public power community. If they are involved, they will share with their friends and neighbors. They will be public power’s best ambassadors.


Again, our #CommunityPowered awareness campaign has many opportunities for customers to engage and share. To learn how you can get involved, email us at [email protected].